Anne-Laure Murier - 2012-08-13
Palermo’s Antica Focacceria San Francesco has been known for its food since 1834, but when the restaurant grabbed the headlines in 2008, it wasn’t for its typically Sicilian dishes. Indeed, the establishment’s fame is directly connected to Fabio and Vincenzo Conticello, its owners who stood up to the Mafia.
‘One never feels free in Palermo,’ says Fabio Conticello, who is enjoying an espresso after an arduous lunch shift. The dynamic 46-year-old entrepreneur, who inherited the Antica Focacceria San Francesco along with his brother Vincenzo, knows what he’s talking about. After having travelled in several countries and opened restaurants in Naples, Rome and Milano, the verdict is clear. ‘Everything is easier abroad or even in the rest of Italy; the professional satisfaction is immediate. In Sicily there’s always an atmosphere of suspicion because there’s so much red tape.’ Take the Antica Focacceria, located on Via Alessandro Paternostro in the Kalsa quarter, for example. With its church, fountain, cobbles, marble and laundry hanging at the windows, this is the historic heart of the city. ‘For the past nineteen years, our restaurant has played an integral role in the life of the quarter. But this year the licence renewal for the terrace is problematic; it requires a new evaluation on the part of the heritage commission. Go figure.’
Mafia, pizzo and vita blindata
Could the Mafia be hoping that the restaurateurs will ask them for a favour? Hard to imagine the Conticello brothers doing such a thing, given that they’ve always refused to give in to intimidation in the past. ‘In late 2005,’ says Fabio, ‘an employee asked us to hire her husband who was in prison at the time and could thereby benefit from a reduced sentence. We were happy with her work, so we accepted. And that’s when we began having problems with our deliveries, notably from our best suppliers. The business was slipping through our fingers. We had to dismiss the rotten apple.’
Then one day a customer who wasn’t really a customer appeared and demanded that they ‘pay up’: 50,000 euros arrears plus 500 euros monthly. ‘Pay a pizzo (mafia protection fee)? In five generations we’d never had to deal with racketeering!’ With the help of the carabinieri who were dining nearby, the Conticellos identified the fellow and had him arrested. Broken car windows, customers’ handbags stolen, a damaged water tank... The pressure continued to increase, but on the day of the trial the two plaintiffs stood firm. They testified and sent the criminals behind bars. ‘Ever since, my brother lives under police protection ‘round the clock. But my wife, son and I, we refused. Vita blindata – living in maximum security – isn’t a life.’
Since then, life goes on in the Kalsa quarter. During lunch and dinner and their two rounds of carabinieri, there’s always a crowd waiting to savour the best dishes of this delectably rustic cuisine. Some of the old customers have kept their distance, but for others, more curious, the media interest in the Conticellos’ battle is a good incentive to come discover their Sicilian specialities. ‘Thanks to the Addiopizzo association, whose solidarity kept us going all the way to court, our clientele has been revitalised.’ So much so that Antica Focacceria San Francesco has become the good folk of Palermo’s favourite restaurant and a tourist attraction in its own right!
Antica Focacceria San Francesco
Via Alessandro Paternostro 58
Tel: +39 (0)91 32 02 64
Worth a try
The panino con la milza, forerunner of the hamburger, is worth the experience. Made with calf’s spleen and also bits of lung, it may be sprinkled with lemon juice and topped with ricotta. Along with roasted aubergines and potato croquettes, the self-service section offers another delicious speciality of Palermo: panelle, or little half-moon crepes made with chick peas.